Principles of Moral Thought and Action
Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller
A notion of karma underlies the New Age principle of morality. The concept of karma derives from the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, though the idea entered New Age parlance primarily through Buddhist channels, originally as reinterpreted by Helena Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy in 1875. In those traditions, karma represents both the law of cause and effect as well as the reason why individuals reincarnate as they do. Within these Asian religions, one produces karma through thought and action, and the resulting karma affects one's experiences in both this lifetime and the next. Various traditions within Hinduism and Buddhism aim to moderate, control, or even eliminate the accumulation of karma.
Within the New Age movement, karma retains these two meanings: that of cause and effect, and explanation for particular rebirths. Fundamentally, New Age practitioners understand the law of karma as the foundation of all moral actions and thought. Since one's actions have both immediate and long-term effects, New Agers believe that one must take all actions with extreme care. Moral choices lead to good karma, and immoral choices to bad karma. Specifically, actions based on love, peace, harmony, and the development of spiritual self-awareness result in positive karma, whereas those predicated on hate, fear, guilt, and discordance yield negative karma.
Most New Agers understand karma as a natural law akin to scientific law. Since New Agers understand the world as a creation of the human mind, karma exists as a natural result of the human mind exerting control over its world. Therefore New Age practitioners do not look at the law of karma as a revealed truth or a legal code that one must follow, but rather as merely a statement of how a person's actions and thoughts create and influence the reality in which they live. Individuals who act with hate or fear generate a world of hate and fear for themselves through the effects of their karma. By contrast, those who act with love and peace inhabit such a reality as they create.
In keeping with some parallels in Hinduism and Buddhism, the New Age movement also looks to karma as a form of spiritual merit that leads toward self-development and spiritual evolution. Moral thoughts and actions, therefore, lead toward individual self-development. Through living a holistic, peaceful, harmonious life, one acquires spiritual worth and slowly develops oneself as a spiritual being. Though good karma does not guarantee a fortunate rebirth, it does indicate that a person has acted appropriately, implying that he or she has achieved the proper mindset for spiritual development. Ideally, New Agers believe, each person develops the self over time, evolving from a lower form of spiritual awareness toward a greater one.
Though New Agers avoid discussing moral choices as evil or good-generally considering those categories the creation of human minds-they do value some types of moral actions over others. New Age moral principles stress the ideals of love, holism, and self-improvement. New Age practitioners look to love as the cardinal virtue of life, including the concept of love for one's fellow human being, love as a sense of general happiness and joy, and the interpersonal love shared between family, friends, and lovers. New Agers look to holism-the view of life as a whole that includes material, spiritual, mental, and supernatural realities-as a key manner in which one must engage the world. In making moral decisions, New Age practitioners also stress the need to enable their own self-improvement, as well as the chance for others to improve themselves and develop themselves as spiritual beings. Broadly speaking, for New Agers an action is moral to the extent that it follows the ideals of love, holism, and enabling the capacity for spiritual self-development.
Unlike the 1960s-1970s counterculture, which tended toward communal utopian thinking, the New Age assumes a more individualistic worldly approach. Though the New Age movement does look to a utopian future of world peace (the "new age"), generally New Agers seek to develop peace within themselves and between themselves and their friends and family. Similarly, New Agers develop holism through their attraction to alternative medical techniques and meditation systems, rather than attempt wide-scale social change through political means.
The New Age focus on love and holism, as well as its theological monism and earth-centered religious practices, has resulted in a strong sense of ecological awareness in the movement. The first wave of environmentalists included a disproportionate number of New Agers who become involved in environmental work because of the moral and theological teachings of the New Age. Because New Agers tend to understand the world in individualistic means, they have supported approaches befitting such a view. New Age ecological awareness has focused on environmentally-aware eating and consuming practices, with New Agers often eating vegetarian, locally-grown, or organic foods, and purchasing products made in sustainable manners. New Agers have also supported a variety of environmental causes including conservation, anti-pollution, and the reduction of greenhouse gases. More broadly, members of the New Age movement have helped popularize ecological and environmental awareness, bringing ideas about fostering harmony between humans and the earth into wider social conversations.
1. Describe the two ways karma is understood within the New Age movement.
2. How does karma operate as a natural law?
3. What values are important to a New Ager? Why are these values inherently individualistic?
4. What do New Agers' actions toward the environment reveal about their beliefs?